Discovering the lost sketchbooks of Albert Wainwright

Classmate to Henry Moore, contemporary of Christopher Isherwood and forebearer to David Hockney, Albert Wainwright was a remarkable artist. His sketchbooks capture gay culture of the interwar years, and now, thanks to a new book, they have been unearthed,

Albert Wainwright’s remarkable and graphic 1920s sketchbooks captured Anglo-German relations between the wars and the gay culture of that period, interspersed with large sections that focus on his adolescent German muse Otto and rural German architecture, much of which was bombed during the Second World War.

The new book, titled Albert & Otto, is thanks to the determined pursuits of independent Portsmouth-based bookseller Callum James, a specialist in gay literature, and his editor friend Nick Elm. The pair have been chasing the lost legacy of Albert Wainwright for years, stalking the sketchbooks from owner to owner until eventually their current executor, the reclusive collector Robert Orme.

Persuading Orme to share the top shelf of what may now be a potentially priceless collection, this astonishing new book Albert & Otto presents a trio of Wainwright's sketchbooks within one jacket.

Born in 1898, Wainwright was a boarding school master who filled his holidays with overseas rural excursions. Unlike his better-known contemporaries Isherwood and Auden who garlanded Berlin as the global epicentre for homosexual proclivities and thinly-veiled sex tourism, Wainwright preferred to lose himself in Germany's remotest regions, using his tin of watercolours to capture the life less documented.

A star pupil at Castleford School, Albert Wainwright was one of two boys who caught the eye of small-town art teacher Alice Costick. In a Billy Elliot-type story, Miss Costick decided to lay on special evening classes for her two protégés in the hope that Leeds College of Art would accept them, and she clearly had an eye for talent. The other boy was called Henry Moore.

A conscientious objector, Wainwright spent the war in Yorkshire painting camouflage. He filled thirty sketchbooks in total that depicted rural scenes, architecture, peasant villagers and young men. He forged a side-business by painting portraits in Robin Hood’s Bay, mainly of his friends' sons, as well as local scenery. Wainwright began to receive recognition in the art world, and was given an exhibition in Wakefield, but then he collapsed suddenly on a bus journey and died from what turned out to be meningitis.

Sadly but inevitably it was Wainwright’s strictly Methodist sister Maud who inherited his life’s work, and like poor Lord Byron before him, Wainwright suffered the posthumous injustice of having his family destruct his inwardly reaching diaries as they outwardly reached to the sitting room hearth and burned them under the selfish and thinly-guiled excuse of “saving his reputation”. Ninety per cent of his legacy went up the chimney.

However, three sketchbooks miraculously survived as a Manchester art dealer Ian Starr bought a big bundle off Wainwright a few years before his untimely death, safely alleviating a sizeable body of work from the indignant family fireside of future years. It is these beautiful remnants that are published in Albert & Otto.

The book is split into sections, "Germany 1929", "Otto in Germany 1929", and "Otto in England". Wainwright’s younger lover and long-time muse Otto was the son of Wainwright’s friends. Presumably Otto's parents didn’t suspect anything unusual when Wainwright proposed taking the boy away for weeks at a time. Some of the results of these uninhibited holidays are laid out in the clear pink brush strokes!

As well as Otto, Wainwright painted other boys too and had a lot of enthusiasm for developing Anglo-German relations between the wars via school exchange programmes. Assisting the Castleford headmaster J R Dawes, Wainwright would either take a bunch of Yorkshire lads off into the sticks of northern German, or host harangues of German boys on home pastures. In a similar vein to the fictional League of Gentleman character Herr Lipp, there is little doubt that Wainwright used his socio-political exchange programme to vent his obsession with the adolescent male figure.

Bizarrely, at the time of his death, Wainwright lived only a few fields away from a then six-year-old David Hockney. Turning the pages of Albert & Otto there are jaw dropping similarities between Wainwright and Hockney’s eye for rural scenes that are at once strangely vivid and yet reticent. Both artists also share the same striking flick in subject matter between the homosexual and the horticultural, inflating both themes with that strange brand of jovial gravity. One can cannot help but wonder if Wainwright was an early influence on Hockney, albeit via Wainwright's sporadic bouquet of local exhibitions.

In James and Elm's book it is the most graphic watercolours and line-drawings of Wainwright’s that initially grab the viewer’s attention. Young Otto in one picture sunbaths naked on a beach of prehistoric grit - Whitby’s stormy Saltwick Bay. Another sketch has Otto rolling his legs back over his head playfully while throwing a cheeky grin at the artist. There are numerous sketches that take place in German gymnasiums and summertime park scenes, where it was then the norm for German boys to play-fight in the buff.

Yet it is Wainwright’s more subtle depictions of rural German landscapes and his crush on quaint architectural details that I hope might procure a sudden rise in interest and monetary value for his work within art buying circles.

One watercolour shows a mysterious fairy-lit boat twinkling merrily, as viewed from the banks of a silent moonlit pond. Haunting, enchanting, completely unexplained. A few pages along there is painting of interconnecting telegraph lines sticking out menacingly in a  field at sunset. Wainwright's sometimes cartoony touch that he brings to provincial windmills, distant power stations and short-tempered cattle herders bears a strange resemblance to the work of present-day Japanese anime house Studio Ghibli.

These still life watercolours are interspersed with original poetry, music scores and quirky military doodles in which Wainwright mimics the gently-snowballing propaganda that he witnessed first hand while touring rural Germany.

This long-awaited release of the under-appreciated paintings of Albert Wainwright are a valuable addition to art history and the more fragile history of gay culture. Fragile because Wainwright’s small painterly pages are windows into a fascinating past that for decades historians refused to document. Powerful because Wainwright’s work also challenges the gay ethos of today. Rather than seek approval from a thankless society and seek to tie the knot before the altar, Wainwright belonged to a generation of gay thinkers who sought solace in the margins, in the nourishing detachment of the great outdoors and in the pleasure-seeking psyche of the nudist.

Hopefully Albert Wainwright will no longer have to settle for the bronze plinth, and instead enjoy some of the recognition that his old school buddy Henry Moore has been basking in all these years. Henry Moore's sculptures of fat ladies may have been lying in Yorkshire's chilly sculpture park for years, but Wainwright's boys were doing it for real a long time before. Living sculptures, now available in book form for the first time.

Albert & Otto: Albert Wainwright's Visual Diary of Love in the 20s is available on Amazon from Callum James Books

Living sculptures: a glimpse of the treasures inside Wainwright's sketchbooks.
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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon